The day before her 57th birthday, Gail Orcutt, a Wellmark member from Altoona, Iowa, visited her doctor for an annoying, persistent cough and wheeze. Since it was spring, she thought it might be allergies.
She didn’t expect it to be lung cancer.
To say she was shocked was an understatement. Orcutt hadn’t smoked a day in her life, and by all accounts, she was the picture of good health. Luckily, Orcutt’s doctor noticed her lungs didn’t sound right, and ordered tests that revealed a nodule between the two lobes of her left lung.
“My doctor's actions that day helped us catch the cancer early, and ultimately saved my life,” says Orcutt.
Orcutt considers herself an outlier, for good reason. According to the National Cancer Institute, 57 percent of lung cancers are caught late in the process External Site, when they are more difficult to treat. By the time you start to notice symptoms, the cancer has often spread to other parts of the body. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, lung cancer kills more Americans External Site, both men and women, than the next three most common cancers combined (colon/rectal, breast and pancreatic).
The “why” behind Orcutt’s lung cancer diagnosis remained a mystery until she read an article about non-smokers and lung cancer. She learned the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is exposure to radon gas. Radon accounts for 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
After surgery to remove her left lung and four rounds of grueling chemotherapy, Orcutt has made it her mission to get the word out about radon testing and mitigation. She has worked extensively with the medical community, real estate developers and agents, legislators and local health organizations to make it a priority, and ultimately, to save lives.
Today, Orcutt is 66, and her fight continues. A rare mutation, originating from the lung cancer, has spread to her hip and through her lymph nodes.
Radon is odorless, tasteless and radioactive
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced from the decay of radium in the soil. Radon typically moves up through the ground and into the air in a home through cracks and other openings in the foundation. Your home traps the radon inside, where it builds up.
“Radon is a problem all over the U.S., but in the Midwest, you have to be especially aware of its risks,” says Dr. Bill Field, a professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa. “Iowa leads the nation in the percent of homes over the EPA’s Radon Action Level of 4 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter), as well as the percent of homes over 20 pCi/L.” The curie is a standard of measure for radioactivity.
If you live in Iowa, measurable amounts of radon will be found in your home at various concentrations. Based on data collected from radon home tests, the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) estimates that as many as five in seven homes across Iowa have radon concentrations that exceed the EPA’s Radon Action Level of 4 pCi/L and an even higher percentage of homes exceed the World Health Organization’s Radon Reference Level of 2.7 pCi/L.
“Any home can have a radon problem,” according to Dr. Field. “Whether or not your home is old, new, well-sealed or drafty, with or without a basement, you can have a radon problem.”
When Orcutt had her home tested, the level was 6.8 pCi/L. Since she had a mitigation system installed, the radon levels in her home regularly measure less than 0.5 pCi/L.
However, radon levels less than 4 pCi/L still pose a risk. In fact, the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council estimates that two-thirds of radon-induced lung cancers occur below this level.
“We have preventive measures and tests for so many diseases,” says Orcutt, “But, there is no requirement to perform radon testing before you move into a home. And even though the cost is minimal, new homes are not required to be built with systems that keep radon out.”
The only way to find out if your home has radon is to test for it. Testing is easy and inexpensive and should be done every two years, or after renovating your home.
You can find test kits online or at hardware stores and other retail outlets. They typically cost $10 – $20. Dr. Field recommends doing a preliminary at-home test and confirming results with another. You can also hire a qualified tester if you want a more detailed finding. This will cost $100–$150.
You can purchase a test kit online External Site through the American Lung Association. If you live in Iowa, you can also buy a test kit by contacting your county health department or calling the Iowa Radon Hotline at 800-383-5992.
It can be a simple fix
If radon is detected, the problem is easily fixed. Radon reduction systems, or mitigation systems, can reduce radon levels in your home by up to 99 percent. Most systems cost between $1,000 and $1,800, depending on your home.
“That may seem like a lot of money,” says Orcutt, “But to me, it seems a small price to pay in order to safely breathe the air in your own home.” She adds, “It’s hard not to compare the cost of a mitigation system to my ongoing prescription costs. My current, ongoing medicine costs would pay for a mitigation system in less than two months.”
“Installing a mitigation system at the time of construction is ideal and less costly,” adds Dr. Field. “But the systems can be installed in any type of home, even after construction.”
Radon mitigation systems use a fan to continuously pull air from the soil and exhaust it outdoors through a pipe. The pipe can either run inside or outside the home and discharges radon outside, away from the windows and openings. In addition, cracks and openings in the foundation are sealed.
For health reasons, it is important to talk to your personal doctor if you are concerned about radon concentrations in your home.
If you have radon concentrations above the EPA’s Radon Action Level and have a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA), radon mitigation is often a covered expense under these accounts. In most cases, you need a letter from your health care provider proving medical necessity.
- Radon is the #1 cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
- An estimated 400 deaths per year in Iowa are caused by radon-induced lung cancer. That is approximately the same number of Iowans who die in traffic accidents each year Opens PDF. In South Dakota, there are an estimated 83 deaths per year caused by radon.
- The average indoor radon concentration in Iowa is more than six times the national average.
- All of Iowa’s 99 counties External Site are in Zone 1, which has the highest potential for radon levels. In South Dakota, 48 of the 66 counties External Site— primarily in the central and eastern part of the state — are in Zone 1.
For more information about radon, visit the Environmental Protection Agency's website External Site or call Eight, Zero, Zero, S, O, S, Radon. Or, watch a video about radon exposure and cancer at the Iowa Cancer Consortium website External Site.